Born in the Ukrainian town of Stanislav (since 1962 Ivano-Frankivsk) to a Belarusian father and a Ukrainian mother, she grew up in Belarus. After finishing school, she worked as a reporter in several local newspapers, and then as a correspondent for the literary magazine Neman in Minsk.
She went on to a career in journalism and writing narratives from interviews with witnesses to the most dramatic events in the country, such as World War II, Soviet-Afghan war, fall of the Soviet Union, and Chernobyl disaster. Her relations with the new Alexander Lukashenko government of Belarus are not good due to her independence and criticisms, and the regime's crack down on independent journalists. She belongs to the opposition which also includes other representatives of the country's intellectuals. According to her profile at the Lannan Foundation website, she was accused of working for the CIA, had her telephone bugged, and was forbidden from making public appearances. She lived in Italy for a while in the early 2000s financed in part by an European Union scholarship. She now resides in Paris.
Her books are described as a literary chronicle of the emotional history of the Soviet and post-Soviet person. Her most notable works in English translation are about first-hand accounts from the war in Afghanistan (The Boys of Zinc) and a highly-praised oral history of the Chernobyl disaster (Voices from Chernobyl). She describes the theme of her works this way:
If you look back at the whole of our history, both Soviet and post-Soviet, it is a huge common grave and a blood bath. An eternal dialog of the executioners and the victims. The accursed Russian questions: what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolution, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet-Afghan war hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land-utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions - Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my books, this is my path, my circles of hell, from man to man.
Her first book The Unwomanly Face of the War came out in 1985. It was repeatedly reprinted and sold out in more than two million copies. This novel is made up of monologues of women in the war speaking about the aspects of the World War II that had never been related before. Another book, The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories describes personal memories of children during war time. The war seen through women's and children's eyes revealed a whole new world of feelings. In 1993, she published Enchanted with Death, a book about attempted suicides as a result of the downfall of the Soviet Union. Many people felt inseparable from the Communist ideology and unable to accept the new order and the newly interpreted history.
Alexievich's books have been published in many countries including USA, Germany, UK, Japan, Sweden, France, China, Vietnam, Bulgaria, and India with a total of 19 countries in all. She has to her name 21 scripts for documentary films and three plays, which were staged in France, Germany, and Bulgaria.
Alexievich has been awarded many international awards, including the Kurt Tucholsky Prize for the "Courage and Dignity in Writing" (the Swedish PEN) , the Andrei Sinyavsky Prize "For the Nobility in Literature", the independent Russian prize "Triumph", the Leipzig Prize "For the European Mutual Understanding- 1998", the German prizes "For the Best Political Book" and the Herder Prize. Voices from Chernobyl won the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award. She is a member of the advisory committee of the Lettre Ulysses Award.
The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (Dalkey Archive Press 2005; ISBN 1-56478-401-0)
Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (W W Norton & Co Inc 1992; ISBN 0-393-03415-1) Another edition: Zinky boys: Soviet voices from a forgotten war (The ones who came home in zinc boxes), translated by Julia and Robin Whitby. London : Chatto & Windus, 1992, ISBN 0-701-13838-6.
War’s unwomanly face, Moscow : Progress Publishers, 1988, ISBN 5-010-00494-1
Zacharovannye smertiu (Enchanted with Death), Moscow: "Slovo", 1994. ISBN 5-850-50357-9
Poslednie svideteli : sto nedetskikh kolybelnykh (The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories.), Moscow, Palmira, 2004, ISBN 5-949-57040-5.